On a recent Friday morning, University of Pittsburgh student Lauren Harker (Sophomore – Accounting) found a quiet spot in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to prepare a federal income tax return.
Only this wasn’t Harker’s own tax return. She was preparing it on behalf of a Pittsburgh resident who needed help. Thanks to her, the resident received a refund of over $1,000 that will provide financial stability.
Harker is a tax-preparer in the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) project. The IRS program offers free tax help to people with low-to-medium incomes, as well as the elderly, people with disabilities, and those with limited English fluency.
“I enjoy participating in this project because it feels good to help those less fortunate with the confusing process of tax returns,” Harker says. “I get to see my impact firsthand, as they are physically sitting next to me when I prepare the returns and tell them how much they will receive.”
This tax season, Harker joined about two dozen Pitt Business students in helping to establish the first VITA location on Pitt’s campus. Every Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the students have been volunteering as tax preparers. With less than a week before the tax filing deadline, they have processed about 60 federal tax returns generating $100,000 in refunds.
“Our initiative is to help those in poverty through their tax refunds,” says student volunteer Louis Cherry (Senior – Accounting).
Since 2002, Pitt Business students have volunteered in VITA projects as members of the Beta Alpha Psi, according to Jocelyn Carlin, the organization’s faculty advisor and a clinical assistant professor of accounting. However, the VITA sites were always off campus and were sometimes run by other local colleges and universities.
Thus, Carlin worked with the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership to establish the new VITA location on Pitt’s campus. By January, they cleared the administrative red tape and received certification by the IRS. According to Carlin, the people most instrumental in getting the program operational were Ingrid Gomez-O’Toole, a project coordinator at the Berg Center; Ray Jones, the associate director of the Berg Center and a clinical associate professor; and Christie Sabo, a site coordinator for the program.
“We had such an overwhelming response from Pitt Business students that we overloaded our site and had more volunteers than time slots available,” Carlin says.
Plans are in the works to expand next year’s VITA program at Pitt.
That expansion is the focus of another group of Pitt Business students. The students are developing a plan for tax assistance programs in the years 2020, 2021, and 2022 as part of a class project in the Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics.
Among the team’s recommendations are staffing improvements to balance out peak demand vs. low-demand times, additional marketing to make community members more aware of the service, the addition of evening appointments to provide more flexibility, and additional training so that more students can earn the advanced certification as VITA project tax-preparers.
“This program is interesting because while the VITA program is benefitting the taxpayers, it also benefits the student volunteers,” says Haley McArthur (Sophomore – Accounting & Business Information Systems). “The program gives the student volunteers the opportunity to gain experience with tax returns, which is especially beneficial to accounting students.”
McArthur was part of the CPLE team. So was Ellie Stroh (Sophomore – Accounting). Stroh began the project intimidated by the technical side of taxes but says she gained information-gathering skills that will help her in a future career as an auditor.
Both Harker and Cherry, the student volunteer tax-preparers, also plan to work in accounting post-graduation. They say the experience of helping others with their tax returns has been fulfilling both professionally and philanthropically.
“This program has changed my perspective on the tax-filing process,” Harker says. “After receiving training to become IRS-certified, I have realized the process is much simpler than everyone thinks. Additionally, I’m more appreciative of the process because I see that it makes a huge impact on the lives of individuals and families who need it most.”
Her positive impact as a tax-preparer isn’t something that Harker will soon forget.
- Beta Alpha Psi is an honors organization for information professionals in the areas of accounting, finance, and business information systems. To join the Pitt Business chapter, please contact faculty advisor Jocelyn Carlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- The Certificate Program in Leadership and Ethics (CPLE) is an academic program for Pitt Business students that prepares them for ethical leadership roles in business. Enrollment begins in a student’s sophomore year. To learn more, please contact the program lead Ray Jones at email@example.com.